Minnesota DNR OKs Feeding Deer Herds Hit Hard by Old Man Winter

By writes Realtree Outdoor News

DNR to release funds so non-profits can feed deer

Just how cold is it in Minnesota?

Cold enough that some folks, especially the Minnesota Deer Hunting Association, want the Department of Natural Resources to spend some of the money allocated from a special deer feeding fund to buy food for deer herds in the hardest hit parts of the state.

The DNR fears that feeding the deer might promote bovine TB and chronic wasting disease, especially since feeding herds brings them in close proximity to each other. The state has spent $10 million fighting TB and CWD in its deer population during the past decade, according to Leslie McInenly, Big Game Program Leader at the Minnesota DNR. “These deer diseases are now either non-existent or at levels so low they cannot be detected,” said McInenly.

Since 1996, Minnesota has been holding 50 cents from every deer-hunting license for a special deer-feeding fund for deer in the north. In 2003, that fund also became available for wild cervidae health management.

The DNR uses a winter severity index (WSI), which measures cumulative temperatures and snow depth, to interpret winter severity.  In response to brutal winters, the DNR established a temporary emergency feeding policy with the intent to evaluate and further research the influence of severe winters and emergency feeding on its northern deer herd. “That policy, effective for 1997-1999, indicated that the Wildlife Section could identify a severe winter condition in deer management units if the WSI hit 100 by February 15.  In those units, deer feeding could occur if the population was at, or projected to be, below goal,” said McInenly.

Minnesotans are wondering if this winter will rival the cold winters of 1995 and 1996. According to the StarTribune, “The DNR estimates the state lost about 30 percent of its whitetail herd was lost the first winter, followed by about 8 percent the second.” The state legislature mandated feeding of the herds back in the winter of 1996. In 1996-1997 the DNR did not implement emergency deer feeding.  Evaluations of emergency deer feeding in Minnesota (1988-89 and 1995-96) found that such a small portion of the deer in the population were actually reached by feeding (a distribution problem, particularly in Minnesota’s northern forest where winter severity is often highest) that the programs had no significant positive impact on the resulting deer population.

On Feb. 13, the DNR issued a statement that it will, however, release some of the funds to feed the deer.

“Our position remains that we do not support emergency deer feeding because it doesn’t have a significant positive effect on the overall deer population and it increases the risk of disease transmission, which outweighs any benefits to individual deer. The occurrence of Bovine Tb in wild deer in northwest Minnesota in 2005 and CWD in a wild deer in southeast Minnesota in 2010 has reinforced our perspective on emergency deer feeding because deer feeding – which artificially congregates deer – increases the potential for the spread of disease through direct contact between animals,” said McInenly.  “And, deer have evolved to withstand severe winters. They are resilient and rebound quickly.  Following the two consecutive severe winters of the late 1990s, the deer population rebounded to pre-severe winter levels within 2 years, and was at near record levels within 5-6 years.”

McInenly said the DNR is responding to concerned hunters regarding the negative impact that winter conditions are having on these herds and consequently, is developing a feeding protocol for this winter that allows non-profit organizations to feed deer from the fund. “Some hunters would like to use those funds for deer feeding and we will act in good faith with the existing purposes of the fund,” added McInenly.  This protocol is only for areas in the state where the winter severity index has reached 100 and where deer populations are below or projected to be below goal.

The DNR will look at developing a long-term policy when the winter passes. Current protocol dates to a late 1990’s report on deer feeding, published before the emergence of CWD and other diseases.

If anything good comes from the long, cold freeze, it might be the approach to deer management in Minnesota.